I found the experience of meeting and talking to the Bow Porcelain artists about their work enlivening and inspiring.
I love the uneasy conjoining of opposites in Lizzie’s choice of materials: hard/soft, hand- made/ industrial, functional/ decorative and how this relates to her feelings on the natural and industrial landscape, and my own visual enjoyment of manmade structures amplifying the natural world. I love looking at pylons stetching across, delineating an expanse of flat landscape.
I thought it might be interesting to find out more about a topic she mentioned- the history of alchemy.
Alchemy is an ancient tradition and the aims of studying it include creating the fabled Philosopher’s Stone (which is able to turn base metals into gold and silver) as well as an elixir (medicinal liquid) of life which gives youth and long life. Isaac Newton himself, who founded modern physics, devoted much of his time to an attempt to turn lead into gold.
The way people have studied alchemy over the centuries has contributed to the development of modern chemistry and medicine- Alchemists developed a framework of theory, terminology, experimental process and basic laboratory techniques that are still used today. However alchemy is different to science as its aims and ideas are more linked to mythology, religion and spirituality. It is in this aspect which I think it relates to Lizzie Cannon’s work. Using familair materials she creates forms which are both believable and unbelievable.
The first people to experiment with science were the Egyptians and Babylonians in around 2000 BC. In the medieval period after the fall of the Roman Empire science almost stopped being developed as barely anyone could read except for monks. As they were religious, they only passed on the parts of Roman knowledge which was in line with the teachings of the Bible.
Scientific study returned to the west once people began glass blowing again. This practice had also been part of Roman culture and forgotten during the Middle ages. Much of chemistry relies on glass as if you carry out experiments in ceramic equipment it tends to interfere with the reactions.
During the Renaissance which began in 1350 science and the arts became much more popular. However the church still had a lot of power in society and often pioneering scientists were persecuted as evil magicians. So the classification framework mentioned above, on which modern science is based, was actually developed during this period to justify the study of alchecmy, and escape from accusations of witchcraft.
Over the centuries the whims of different Kings and Queens have led to a fall in the popularity of alchemy. New physical sciences arose which discarded concepts of magic in favour of reason and logic. They eventually led to what is known today as physics and chemistry.
Isaac Newton (mentioned above) who developed the basis of modern physics, at the same time as studying alchemy lived from 1642 to 1727. The first patent (protection of a design) to produce porcelain was registered in 1744 when the founders of the Bow Porcelain factory Edward Heylin and Thomas Frye used china clay from Native American Indians.The Cherokee clay or ‘unaker’ is said to have been brought to England by a traveller who recognised its similarity to the ‘kaolin,’ or china clay, of the Chinese.
‘It was found on the back of Virginia, where he was in quest of mines…He is gone for a cargo of it, having bought from the Indians the whole country where it rises.’ [Chaffers, Marks and Monograms (ed. 9, 1900), 887.]
They then applied for another patent in 1748, and the wording of this patent was even more obscure than the first. It was for a ‘virgin earth’ produced by calcining animals, vegetables, and fossils, ‘but some in greater quantity than others, as all animal substances, all fossils of the calcareous kind, as chalk, limestone, &c.[Chaffers, op. cit. 888.]
Lizzie herself said she was interested in re- engaging people in exoticism and mysticism with material through the Bow Porcelain project.
Through these records it is obvious that Heylin and Frye did not know the correct materials and quantites to mix to produce porcelian and patented versions of their best guess as it developed. They were experimenting. Until this point porcelain had only been imported into Britain from China, and never produced here. It was an almost mythological, and hugely sought- after material. They were experimenting only twenty years or so after Isaac Newton died, who had pioneered so much in the development of science, and devoted so much time to alchemy. This was their own attempt to transform materials to create a new substance, and eventually they were successful where Newton was not.